Popular Belief #3: Millennials are overwhelmingly choosing public transit and giving up cars, a relic of the 20th century.

Image : Urawa Zero via Flickr — CC2.0

Public transportation has the wind in its sails: in 2013, the United States recorded 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, the highest annual level in over 50 years. In France, public transit use in cities increased by 29% from 2002 to 2012, while 49.5 billion trips were made by public transit in the European Union during this period.

Young people seem particularly fond of public transportation: in the major U.S. cities (San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C., etc.), 43% of individuals under 30 use public transportation at least once a week, compared to only 12% of 30- to 60-year-olds. Yet this generation was not predestined to adopt public transit use in such proportions. According to TransitCenter, American Millennials, born and raised in a car-centric environment, “are defying their upbringing by choosing [public] transit.

Even today, Millennials seem not only to be using public transit more, but to be giving up driving, as shown by the decline in the percentage of young people with a driver’s license, down from 76% in 1992 to 73% in 2012 among 18- to 29-year-olds in France.In the U.S., this rate has dropped to 67% of 16- to 34-year-olds, a level not seen since 1963. At the same time, the number of trips by bicycle among American 16- to 34-year-olds climbed 24% from 2001 to 2009, and the distance travelled by public transportation grew by 40%.

What is motivating this apparent desertion of cars by young people? Is it the consequence of a change in ideas about mobility, specific to this generation? Or is it the result of various constraints forcing them to rely on alternative modes of transport?

Let us put this desertion of the automobile into perspective. To begin, this phenomenon is not specific to one particular generation: in the U.S., between 2000 and 2010, the average distance travelled by car dropped by 25% among 16- to 30-year-olds, but also by 11% among 31- to 55-year-olds, denoting perhaps a change in habits for economic reasons.

Secondly, the craze for public transportation demonstrated by Millennials should not obscure the fact that in the U.S., this generation still travels mostly by car: 8 out of 10 young adults go to work by car, a proportion that has been stable since 1980.

Finally, cars are still objects of desire, even in the eyes of Millennials: this cohort is more likely to consider cars as an indicator of social success than their elders (32%, compared to 19% among individuals over 32) — a paradox for a generation considered detached from cars. In fact, since owning a car soon after obtaining one’s license has become increasingly rare and less necessary, cars have once again become items of social distinction. The Urban Land Institute concludes that this generation “is not destined for radical change” and that “their goals largely match those of their parents.

Rather than the result of belonging to a generation, do changes in individual choices not depend more on factors such as balancing the cost of using public transit vs. a car, environmental consciousness, the desire to use travel time to surf the Internet, or the quality of local public transit service? Such is the diagnosis formulated by TransitCenter, which deems that it is not just personal values but, most importantly, the type of neighborhood people live in that informs their mobility choices.

Thus, in urban areas, the choice of whether or not to use a car is directly linked to the characteristics of these cities, where parking spaces are rare, where traffic congestion is inevitable, and where the public transit network makes the purchase of a vehicle less relevant. In 2008, the Commissariat général au développement durable noted that car ownership in France:

“is highly dependent on the type of territory of residence. The number of vehicles per adult varies from 0.8 in rural communes to 0.7 in rural centers and urban centers of less than 100,000; it is 0.6 in urban centers of more than 100,000 inhabitants and in the Paris suburbs, and falls to 0.3 within Paris.”

The same year, the French Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE) stated that just 22% of 18- to 20-year-olds in Île-de-France were able to drive, versus 67% in the country. Urbanization might therefore partly explain the decline in the licensing rate and in car use, among young and older people alike.

But choices and habits are also a function of income level: in the United States, people with the highest incomes (annual household income above $150,000) and those who, conversely, have the lowest incomes, are more likely to travel by public transportation than individuals with average incomes. In Europe, 56% of 18- to 31-year-olds do not have a car because they cannot afford one.

We should therefore refrain from inferring, based on the statistics related to the decline in car sales among young people, a generational effect or a deliberate choice away from cars. Moreover, the rise of ride-sharing suggests that the glory days of cars are not over, and that the economic situation and its effects on younger households are perhaps leading these young people to opt for occasional car use rather than the more costly option of car ownership.

Thus, some young people, as well as some older drivers subject to the same economic uncertainties, are choosing a new kind of compromise: to continue, through ride-sharing, to use cars for certain types of trips too infrequent to justify buying and maintaining a vehicle, while using other forms of mobility (walking, biking, public transit) for shorter trips (e.g. daily commute to work).

This compromise seems motivated more by the economic constraints profoundly affecting some young people than by an aversion to cars. This explains why 85% of European Millennials expect to buy a vehicle within the next ten years, perhaps believing they will eventually be in a financial situation that will be more conducive to the purchase of a vehicle.

This article is part of our installment “Factcheck: Millennials, an Urban Legend?”, in which La Fabrique de la Cité deconstructs the Millennial stereotype and analyzes this generation’s rapport to the city. Read the integral version of this Factcheck on our website.